Homeland Security, Pentagon Clash on Military's Role at Mexico Border

Guardsmen from Utah extend a wall at the Arizona-Mexico border. A proposal to send 1,500 additional Guard troops to the border is under consideration.
Guardsmen from Utah extend a wall at the Arizona-Mexico border. A proposal to send 1,500 additional Guard troops to the border is under consideration. (2006 Photo By Khampha Bouaphanh -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

A proposal to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to counter drug trafficking has triggered a bureaucratic standoff between the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security over the military's role in domestic affairs, according to officials in both departments.

The debate has engaged a pair of powerful personalities, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in what their subordinates describe as a turf fight over which agency should direct the use of troops to assist in the fight against Mexican cartels and which one should pay for them.

At issue is a proposal to send 1,500 additional troops to the border to analyze intelligence and to provide air support and technical assistance to border agencies. The governors of Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico began making the requests in January, drawing support from Napolitano but prompting objections from the Pentagon, where officials argue that it could lead to a permanent, expanded mission for the military.

President Obama has signaled that he is open to the idea, asking Congress for $250 million to deploy the National Guard while also saying he was "not interested in militarizing the border." In the war supplemental funding bill that Obama signed last week, lawmakers appropriated the money for other Justice and DHS border security but said the president could ask again when he reached a decision. The issue has been stalled before a National Security Council policy committee, after which it would go to Obama for a decision.

Neither Napolitano nor Gates has made the disagreement personal, although some of their aides have privately expressed exasperation at what one called an interagency "food fight."

"It should not be that we always rely on the Department of Defense to fulfill some need," said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., head of U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for defending the continental United States.

Border law enforcement agencies should have adequate funds to do their job, he said. If the Guard is tapped, it should be for capabilities "that do not exist elsewhere in government," Renuart said. "When we send the National Guard, they go with specific missions, with specific purposes. And we put some duration on that so there is an end state."

Homeland security officials and governors counter that there is a legitimate need for troops to back up border agencies against the most serious threat to the Southwest and that a deployment would not represent a new military mission. Under a 1989 law, the National Guard assigns 577 troops to help states with anti-drug programs, which "can easily expand," the four governors wrote Congress in April.

Napolitano, who as governor of Arizona prompted President George W. Bush to send 6,000 guardsmen to the border in 2006, has supported the governors.

Brian de Vallance, senior counselor to Napolitano, said she "feels we have an obligation to do whatever we can do to disrupt those forces that are destroying lives in over 200 American cities. . . . It comes down to whether folks want to be as aggressive as we can be against the cartels and take every advantage of this historic opportunity" of cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

The debate goes to the heart of the military's role, which has expanded since the 2001 terrorist attacks, with an increasing commitment of troops and resources to homeland defense, particularly to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear attack or other domestic catastrophe. Deploying new troops to the border would represent a mission the military has not traditionally embraced.

"What we're seeing here is a move toward reframing where defense begins and ends," said Bert B. Tussing, director of homeland defense and security issues at the U.S. Army War College's Center for Strategic Leadership. "Traditionally the military looks outward, but looking outward has begun a lot closer to home, and it may involve looking just across the border."

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